27 Apr 2016

The future of Caño Tiburones hangs on a thread

Chirriras. Photo: Ela Cruz, SOPI
Chirriras. Photo: Ela Cruz, SOPI
By Shaun Hurrell

The wind in your hair, the sound of birds, you’re paddling down 30km of estuarine channels in Puerto Rico’s largest wetland. A unique mix of freshwater and saltwater producing a full variety of natural aromas from native plants. Trying to spot all 190 resident bird species, lost in the moment, you might not realise that this small paradise is under attack. Farmers want to reclaim some of the land and a water-thirsty incinerator might be built here. Suddenly, you start to notice a slight smell of pollution, which also threatens the wetland.

The fate of Puerto Rico's largest and most important wetland will be decided this week by the Court of San Jose. Caño Tiburones is an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA) because it holds globally important populations of the Vulnerable West Indian Whistling-duck Dendrocygna arborea and no less than 14 species endemic to the island. On the 28th of April, the national authorities will present a project outlining their plans for the future of the wetland, which could mean the full protection of this IBA or harmful development that will likely lead to the damage and loss of the currently unprotected half of the site.

Back in 1998, the Puerto Rican Legislative Assembly voted overwhelmingly to pass Public Law 314 on Wetlands Policy, which ordered that Caño Tiburones be restored and protected.  However, that same year, the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources and the Planning Board failed to protect the entire area, as intended by the Assembly, and instead designated only 50% as Caño Tiburones Natural Reserve with the other half of the wetland managed by the Land Authority. On the unprotected half of the wetland there are high pressures from agriculture, pollution and plans to construct an incinerator with very high water demand. Due to these threats, the site has been listed as an IBA in Danger since 2013.

Since February 2015, SOPI (Sociedad Ornitológica Puertorriqueña, Inc.; BirdLife in Puerto Rico) has been pursuing legal action in the national courts to achieve full legal protection of the IBA. They have received support from a wide range of national and international organizations in their fight for Caño Tiburones. However, recently the land developers and national agencies have stepped up pressure for the continued exploitation of the wetland and against its full protection.

“This is a critical time for Caño Tiburones and we will need all the help we can get to get a favourable decision in the Court”, 

says Nathaniel González, the President of SOPI.

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Answering this plea, the BirdLife Partner organizations of the Americas are signing a letter in support of the position of SOPI at the BirdLife Americas Partnership Meeting that currently takes place in Panama City in Panama. They expect that the Court of San Juan will decide in favour of the full protection of this important wetland in the Caribbean.

Explore the world's Important Bird Area's in Danger with our interactive storymap